Bi Shumin is one of the most unusual and powerful female writers in China's current literary scene. She has created very influential works, writing almost 4 million words and has won more than 30 prizes both at home and abroad since the late 1980s.
Amazingly, she was able to move from medicine when she created her first works in 1987, she was already 35 years old. She joined the army when she was 16 and practiced medicine for 22 years. She is much like writers Lu Xun and Guo Moruo, who also gave up medical science for the pen.
Bi Shumin's uncommon life experiences have given her works distinctive characteristics and endowed her with perspectives both as a writer and as a doctor. She also possesses unique insights that can grasp both mental and physical essence, courage, broad mindedness and merciful sentiments that are difficult for many writers, and a mission and responsibility that regards it as her own duty to heal the wounded and rescue the dead while curing sickness to save patients.
What Tibet Gives
From the very beginning her nature has been to be interested in other people, envisioning them as fascinating and mysterious. The nature of her writing is also to talk about people, about the connections between people and nature, and people and the universe.
Literature is the study of people. When Bi was a high school student in Beijing -- just a little older than 16 -- she had to leave school and join the army.
Recalling her army experience in Tibet, Bi said, "I was sent to northern Tibet, maybe because I was in good health, and our unit was stationed at a juncture between a group of mountains at an elevation of 5,000 meters. To a 16-year-old girl, 35 years ago, it was an intense shock to be totally cut off from the world. It felt like Mars, like the earth had only recently solidified, without a scrap of human habitation."
Bi stayed there for 11 years. "While I was there, Tibet's environment had a great influence on my future writing. At night you saw the stars -- they were enormous. During the day you saw the endless wilderness and you thought for a thousand years, for 10 thousand years, all this has been perfectly self-sufficient. A life of 100 years is insignificant to these mountains. I came away from this with the intense feeling that life is fleeting, and precious -- not only my own, but other peoples."
Bi said after she returned to Beijing, she wanted to tell everyone what she had learned in Tibet. So she discovered writing.
"Although every one of my books is different, this is the one thing that doesn't change: the sense of solicitude for other people. Now I run a psychological clinic, and in some ways the impulses that drove me to write are the same ones that brought me here: an interest in the workings of people's souls and a desire to help them," Bi said.
She also tries to encourage young people to cherish life, to have the same sense of purpose that living in Tibet gave her. "I try, both through my work and my writing Appointed Death (Yuyue Siwang) to overcome the Eastern taboos against talking about death, and to help people see it as a natural thing," Bi stated.
In 1969 Bi Shumin was sent to Tibet as an army medic in the PLA and stayed there for 11 years. Her writing career began in 1987 with the publication of Death in Kunlun (Kunlun Shang), a fictional novella based on those experiences. She was a doctor for 22 years, now acts as vice-chairman of the Beijing Writers Association, and opened a psychological clinic more than a year ago. She has written all her life.
Bi travels in the fields of medicine and literature, and is a unique person in Chinese literary world. She pays close attention to her writing objects from the perspectives both as a writer and as a doctor. She grasps clearly the essence of life from all aspects, such as physiology, psychology, ethics and morals; she focuses on medical themes and develops a school of her own because of her medical contents and narrative performance.
Life and Death
Bi was one of the representatives for "New Experience Writing," a literary school that originated in 1993 in Beijing and claims that the writers' personal experiences should be the foundation for literary writing. "A writer needs some reasons to write a novel. For my own part, my experience two decades ago has fostered a keen interest in human beings. While writing, I always pay special attention to life and death, which is the persistent theme of my novels," said the writer.
And her latest novel Save the Breast is no exception. The novel is about several breast cancer patients, and a psychologist who unites the patients and offers them support. Facing the threat of death, the patients are also experiencing mental crises. Some are discriminated against after the surgical removal of their breasts, some develop split personalities and some lose their zest for life and their belief in true love.
"The basic tone of the novel is oppressive, with vivid descriptions of the patients' mentality facing the threat of death," Bi claimed. For that reason, the novel has been dubbed the first "psychotherapy novel" in China.
Bi calmly interprets the theme of "life" and "death" and the great humanistic care in a calm and unhurried tone, and spans the single sociological perspective and rises to the level to question closely the value of life and to think about the meaning of life by her evermore mature works. She expresses her literary gist to reveal, criticize and redevelop the shortcomings of human nature. She explores the functional relationships between doctors and patients, and that of disease and therapy, which are the most basic ones in the complicated medical system. She clothes medical science with a literary coat and moulds characters' natures with the "coldness" of medical science and the "heat" of literature. She makes the gloomy medical topics and abstruse and obscure medical terms relaxing, humorous and easy to understand.
About China's Contemporary Literature
Bi thinks real literature is not very highly appreciated these days; this is simply a reality. Considering China's present state, with development moving at high speed, people are bound to pay more attention to practical things. Part of it, from Bi's point of view, is because of readers' tastes, and the practical considerations of their lives, but another part is that modern Chinese literature -- literature that can really shake people and that grasps the essence of society -- cannot leave a truly deep impression. But once a person's basic needs are satisfied, and once their lives are stable, Bi believes that the appreciation for art will return.
Save the Breast
Bi Shumin's latest book, Save the Breast, focuses on the psychological trauma of breast cancer patients. It is the first novel written and published in China to take psychological therapy as its theme. Inspired by the mental failure of Beijingers she encountered during the SARS outbreak, the author's intention was to "give a true portrayal of humanity's instinctive love of life and dread of death."
"In the recess of everyone's heart exists an instinctive love of life and dread of death," the author said. In the book, Bi Shumin felt compelled to address the trauma faced by countless women suffering from breast cancer: that of a real threat removed. "The mental state of such women merits acknowledgement and empathy from the whole community."
Save the Breast is a serious work with a somewhat deviant title. The book's title is considered to be flirting with readers and luring people to buy it by suggesting sexual overtones. However, Bi denies the charge. "It is not an all-sided view to judge a book merely by its title," explained Bi. According to Bi, the title was picked by the publisher, People's Literature Publishing House, after careful and cautious consideration. Publishing house director Liu Yushan argued that by using the title, the house was not catering to prurient interests of some readers. Save the Breast does not intend to use sex as its selling point. Save the Breast deals with the stories of a group of breast cancer patients.
"As an established writer, it is unnecessary for Bi to do so," Liu said. "Those who have not read the novel might bear 'certain thoughts'," he conceded. "But after reading it, they will agree that this is the most suitable title."
The book's first printing ran 120,000 copies, a very large number since the ordinary first print amount for novels sits between 5,000 to 50,000 copies. Bi originally entitled the novel Cancer Patients Group (Aizheng Xiaozu ), but it was given up after publishing insiders warned that the word cancer might scare away readers.
(chinaculture November 16, 2005)